News broke yesterday that the NCAA was getting it’s nose inside the tent of Auburn freshman Jovon Robinson’s academic eligibility. A guidance counselor confessed to making up a fraudulent transcript for the coveted running back, and has resigned.
Allegations of improper benefits are in the news almost every other day, it seems. Someone sold a jersey. Someone got help buying a car. Someone was seen wearing a new suit. While the NCAA takes all potential rules violations seriously, allegations of academic impropriety get special attention because they go to the heart of the NCAA’s meme on the “student athlete.”
ByLawBlog’s John Infante has a keen analysis on the Memphis case.
What Did Auburn Know?
What Auburn knew should not have too much impact on Robinson’s eligibility, unless Auburn was how Robinson knew his transcripts were being falsified. Rather, what Auburn knew or did will mostly impact Auburn.
Pressuring a high school guidance counselor would be a serious charge for the university. It would be almost guaranteed to result in individuals being fired and charged with ethical conduct violations, and would likely be a major violation for Auburn as well. Simply knowing it will happen and allowing it would be almost as bad. But those violations take time to process and are secondary to determining Robinson’s eligibility as soon as possible.
So What Should the NCAA Do?
Robinson’s eligibility is a complex question because there are two issues right now: whether he would have been a qualifier and whether he knew about the guidance counselor’s actions. If Robinson had knowledge of or participated in the academic fraud, that would be an ethical conduct violation with a normal penalty of a one-year suspension and losing a season of competition. If Robinson was also going to be a nonqualifier, that would mean he would need to go the junior college route, be starting with three seasons of eligibility, and maybe need to sit out for a year when he returns to Division I.
If the NCAA does not have evidence that Robinson knew what was going on and he was going to be a qualifier anyway, nothing should happen with his eligibility. If there is no clear evidence either way and Robinson was going to be a nonqualifier, he should just be declared a nonqualifier and would have to leave Auburn unless he can get a waiver.
However if Robinson can show clear evidence he did not know what was going on and was going to be a nonqualifier, that would be strong mitigation and he likely deserves a waiver. Even if he would have been very short, he should get a partial waiver to keep his scholarship and continue practicing with the team, just not be cleared to play this year.
Finally, if Auburn was involved and Robinson was not, he should have the opportunity to leave Auburn. He should not be declared ineligible and forced to leave. Rather, he should be permitted to void his National Letter of Intent, transfer without restriction, and be immediately eligible if he decided to leave Auburn.
As Infante notes, it’s hard to swallow another case where everyone’s fate rests on what the student-athlete knew and when he knew it but it does give Auburn an out—if Robinson and the school can show that this was strictly an action taken by a rogue guidance counselor—there’s no penalty to be enforced here aside from Robinson having to do some extra work in a JUCO somewhere.
But don’t dismiss the likelihood that the guidance counselor is the only perpetrator of foul deeds.
“You would not believe the dance some of these schools do to get kids in and keep them eligible. Marshall made a living off SEC caliber kids who could not meet the academic requirements of the SEC and Memphis was exposed in a recent Chronicle of Higher Ed article which showed the lengths they would go to keep kids eligible,” says Dr. David Ridpath, Associate Professor of Sports Administration at Ohio University and Co-Editor of the Journal of Issues in Intercollegiate Athletics.
Ridpath is speaking of mid-major programs that have feasted on talent that couldn’t meet the academic requirements of big-time football programs, but academic scandals like the one that forced Florida State to vacate a boatload of victories and the ongoing dumpster fire at North Carolina show that even major football programs break rules to get kids enrolled and on the field.
“There are lots of bylaws at play here and 10.1b will be the big one along with several other eligibility and likely financial aid bylaws if he signed an NLI. Since it was to seek a competitive advantage there might be some recruiting bylaws at play,” said Ridpath.
By-law 10.1 is one of the big ones, with the potential of carrying big-time sanctions:
Unethical conduct by a prospective or enrolled student-athlete or a current or former institutional staff member (e.g., coach, professor, tutor, teaching assistant, student manager, student trainer) may include, but is not limited to, the following: (Revised: 1/10/90, 1/9/96, 2/22/01)
(a) Refusal to furnish information relevant to an investigation of a possible violation of an NCAA regulation when requested to do so by the NCAA or the individual’s institution;
(b) Knowing involvement in arranging for fraudulent academic credit or false transcripts for a prospective or an enrolled student-athlete;
”Knowing involvement” is the key.
It all comes down to the question: “What did they know and when did they know it?”